The latest slow-burn drama from Michael Haneke, Happy End, initially appears to strain for focus. Haneke takes an otherwise compelling theme—every member of the affluent Laurent family is unhappy, most of them unwilling to admit or dwell on their loved ones’ pain—and develops it through sketch-thin characterizations. But as it becomes increasingly clear, Haneke is showing us the various familial influences that contribute to the alienation felt by troubled 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), a despondent loner who’s forced to live with her estranged father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), after she poisons her biological mother. By juxtaposing various bite-sized vignettes of Eve’s family as they confront various moments of personal grief or weakness, Haneke tells us all we need to know in order to make up our own minds about why Eve behaves the way that she does.
It’s hard to get a firm grasp on Happy End’s slippery perspective until Haneke eventually foregrounds Eve’s story. Before then, the filmmaker treats her like everyone else who’s struggling to compartmentalize or conceal their problems. Haneke doesn’t exclusively tell the Laurents’ various stories from any single character’s perspective. Instead, he explores various disparate subplots from a clinically dispassionate and omniscient perspective, from Eve’s Snapchat-style video of the poisoning of her guinea pig to Thomas’s comically torrid sexting sessions with his mistress, Claire. Still, Eve’s story is the clothesline that Haneke hangs the rest of Happy End stories on, as we see when Eve uses her iPhone at the very beginning and very end of the film to document or confess to damning acts of indiscretion.
The film doesn’t lack for characters who’re incapable of hiding their pain, even as the exact source of their misery is something they all struggle to articulate. For example, Eve’s impulsive uncle, Pierre (Franz Rogowski), exasperatedly tries to connect with his mother, Anne (Isabelle Huppert), but only ever really comes close to expressing his feelings of invisibility when he performs a bizarre improvisatory breakdance at an open-mic karaoke night. Elsewhere, Eve’s depressed grandfather, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), tries to convince anyone who will listen—strangers on the street, his barber—to kill him, while Eve herself fearfully asks her father about his affair with Claire because she fears that she will otherwise be abandoned.
By contrast, we glean little about those who’re exclusively defined by their reluctance to discuss their problems. Anne’s engagement to business attorney Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones) is barely a consideration since it doesn’t directly affect anyone but her. And Thomas is unwilling to admit that he’s unhappy in his marriage to Eve’s stepmother, Anaïs (Laura Verlinden). Still, Anne and Thomas are only relatively one-dimensional because they’re obstacles in Eve’s ever-frustrated quest to relate to somebody close to her. Haneke favors Georges and Pierre because they’re every bit as unfulfilled as Eve. When Georges interrogates her, and tries to get her to explain why she tries to kill herself, she shrugs: “I don’t know.” Eve is a mystery to herself, which makes her a subject of especial fascination for Haneke. We’re not meant to know what motivates the characters that serve as Eve’s foils, but to see them as parts of a complicated system that yields her frustrations.
So Haneke often shows us events that Eve couldn’t have observed firsthand, because they serve to illustrate the negative energy that she’s indirectly absorbed from her family. At one point, Pierre talks to Anne about his growing certainty that she, a no-nonsense businesswoman, will not allow him, a thin-skinned hothead, to succeed her as the head of her construction company. This scene doesn’t directly concern Eve, but it gives us enough information to understand why Pierre acts out at Anne’s wedding. And this matters in the end since his outburst distracts Anne and Thomas long enough for Eve to break away from the group and commit one of her acts of indiscretion. Happy End’s various dangling plot threads may be immediately puzzling, but they ultimately form an involving, deceptively empathetic portrait of personal grief as it’s experienced in a desensitized first-world society.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.